... Among other things, most economists believe that we humans are self-interested, rational, essentially individualistic, and prefer more money to less. These articles of faith are taken as self-evident.
By way of introduction: the ubiquity of Economics
Non-economists cannot be faulted if they wonder aloud as to the ubiquity of economics-with this writer coming up with disparate topics all tied to economics: for example, we’ve touched on economics of education, population economics-and now, economics of religion; yet more are in the pipeline. How dare we stretch a discipline so far and wide and still claim the procedure is legitimate?
There are two answers to the curiosity-inspired question. One is the outcome of ideological degeneration, the second is the fundamental status of the subject. The first answer comes from the fact that over time, practitioners of the discipline have dethroned it from the high pedestal of political economy with emphasis on the state in interaction with extant groups and social classes in the process of resource generation and distribution to the mundane but now more practical level of micro-application where all things, including human relations, are monetized. But if indeed we return to the fundamental status of economics as political economy, we come across the reality of existence in which most things are rooted in and influenced by the economy: family, group formations, communities and nations- all owing their existence and basic operations to their respective economic foundations and conditions; hence the seeming ubiquity of the discipline. We are here invoking the truism that the material economic foundation of any social reality exerts great influence on the politics and other social indices of the society even as the influence is not unidirectional.
Kernel of the Economics of religion: The nexus of religion and economics
On an internet page-by the side of a photo of the Holy Bible-runs this headline: “Why is religion related to economics?’ and under it, the following contentious, dense entry:
Religious beliefs matter for economic outcomes. They reinforce character traits such as hard work, honesty, thrift, and the value of time. Otherworldly compensations such as belief in heaven, hell, the afterlife-can raise productivity by motivating people to work harder in this life.
In the overall effort at teasing out the essence of economics of religion is the sticky issue of methodology in terms of direction of causality between economics and religion; on this, a tome of literature has been produced. As noted by Laurence R. Iannaccone in “Introduction to the Economics of Religion”- Journal of Economic Literature Vol. XXXVI (September 1998), pp. 1465–1496:
Armed with the tools of economic theory and a large body of data, economists have written nearly 200 papers [a number now without doubt much surpassed-AM] concerning issues that were previously confined to other social sciences—the determinants of religious belief and behaviour, the nature of religious institutions, and the social and economic impact of religion.
In the typical focus and language of economists who are forever searching for causation and ascertaining the influence of one factor on another, in their article, “Religion and Economy”, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives [Volume 20, Number 2—Spring 2006—Pages 49 –72], Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro explored the influence of religion on the economy and vice versa, concluding that:
Religion has a two-way interaction with political economy. With religion viewed as a dependent variable, a central question is how economic development and political institutions affect religious participation and beliefs. With religion viewed as an independent variable, a key issue is how religiosity affects individual characteristics, such as work ethic, honesty and thrift, and thereby influences economic performance.
It is this unfolding relation that defines our theme which Wikipedia seeks to simplify in the submission that: The economics of religion concerns both the application of the techniques of economics to the study of religion and the relationship between economic and religious behaviours.
Tracing the roots of the nexus
Although the interest and focus of the Paper, “Religion in Economic History: A Survey” by Sascha O. Becker, Jared Rubin and Ludger Woessmann-all of Economic Science Institute of Chapman University, is on a particular region of the world, their observation that, “historically, religion has played an important role in [Western] societies, affecting or even defining individual beliefs and traits, cultural norms and values, social groups and organizations, and political and military power”, nonetheless carries universal relevance. Taking Africa as an example, religion has been an integral part of the culture of the people based on traditional values held sacrosanct with direct influence on economic activities.
Wikipedia’s attempted clarification on the roots of the relationship between economics and religion makes a somewhat clumsy use of historical references to the European context, detailing how:
Religion can have long-lasting effects on a society and its economy. For instance, municipalities of Spain with a history of a stronger inquisitorial presence show lower economic performance and educational attainment today. Similarly, protestantism in Germany has long affected education and thus economic performance. In 1816, school attendance was about 50% in catholic regions while it was about 66% in protestant regions. The correlation between religion and economic outcomes can be interpreted in two ways: (1) a feature intrinsic to religion which affects growth or (2) a feature correlated to religion but not religion itself which affects growth.
The affinity between economics and religion seems to have been strengthened by the almost religious faith in the tenets of economics especially with the triumph of neoclassical school, as eloquently articulated by John Rapley in the piece, “How economics became a religion” published in The Guardian (London) of Tuesday-July 11, 2017, asserting boldly, that:
Just as any religious service includes a profession of faith, membership in the priesthood of economics entails certain core convictions about human nature. Among other things, most economists believe that we humans are self-interested, rational, essentially individualistic, and prefer more money to less. These articles of faith are taken as self-evident.
Not surprising, it is through the lens of these neoclassical economic beliefs that religion is often viewed and analyzed.
Looking at specific religions
As alluded to earlier, in Africa, traditional religions were part of the natural ways of life with hardly any dividing line between the secular and the spiritual. We shall therefore restrict our attention here to the two religions that have become dominant in contemporary era. Our examination takes the form of brief looks at Christian economics and Islamic economics, respectively.
In an interesting write up on ”Economics and the Christian Worldview: 12 Theses” shared on the platform of Southern Equip, R. Albert Mohler, Jr. the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as well as the Joseph Emerson Brown Professor of Christian Theology at Southern Seminary, USA started on a cheering note for economists as he observed that:
. . . Economics is, in fact, one of most important social sciences. Regrettably, many American Christians know little about economics. Furthermore, many Christians assume that the Bible has nothing at all to say about economics. But a biblical worldview actually has a great deal to teach us on economic matters. The meaning of work, the value of labor, and other economic issues are all part of the biblical worldview.
In the light of this biblical material, Albert Mohler proposed 12 theses that should underpin the Christian economic worldview. Seven of these theses are hereunder reproduced without much comment due to their self-clarification and space constraint, namely:
1. A Christian economic understanding has God’s glory as its greatest aim- an offshoot of a transcendent economic authority.
2. A Christian economic understanding respects human dignity.
3. A Christian economic understanding respects private property and ownership. As illustration, the Ten Commandments teach us not to steal—which assumes the notion of private property.
4. A Christian economic understanding upholds and rewards righteousness.
5. A Christian economic understanding rewards initiative, industry, and investment.
6. A Christian economic understanding upholds the family as the most basic economic unit. This ties seamlessly with respect for community. It also serves as endorsement of Jacob Imam’s point (reference his Christian Economics 101 on the online platform, New Polity) to the effect that: “The study of the economy does not begin with supply and demand curves, the profit motive, or any other predictive properties of a large body of people. It begins with the home”.
7. A Christian economic understanding rewards generosity and proper stewardship.
A nuanced reading of thesis (3) above registers it as polite apology for capitalism, but we choose not to focus on this aspect given as we shall soon discover, that it is indeed a common feature of both Abrahamic monotheistic religions. However, a middle ground appears on the All About Worldview platform which records that:
When it comes to Christian Economics, Christians hold different views about which economic system is most in line with biblical teaching. Some believe the Bible encourages a system of private property and individual responsibilities and initiatives (citing Isaiah 65:21–2; Jeremiah 32:43–4; Acts 5:1–4; Ephesians 4:28). Others support a socialist economy (citing Acts 2:44–45). Still others, who are called liberation theologians, believe the Bible teaches a form of Marxism and that some form of socialism will usher in the Kingdom of God.
From the foregoing, it is evident that Christian economics concerns itself more with communal harmony than pretentious individual piety.
S.M. Hazanuz Zaman- Chief, Islamic Economic Division State Bank of Pakistan has provided a working, even if controversial piece on, “Definition of Islamic Economics”, as follows:
One way of defining Islamic economics is to qualify the term modern economics with Islam, viz. Islamic economics is `the study of economics in the light of Islamic principles', or `bringing economics in consonance with the Shari'ah'. But this would imply that the definition of the science of economics has a universal acceptability which it does not. Another way of defining Islamic economics would be to accommodate the latest and the least criticised definition of economics and qualify it with Islam. For example, if we accept Robbins' definition of economics, we could define Islamic economics as `a science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses, in the light of the Shari'ah'.
If we bear in mind that Robbins’ definition invoked above and which has become the bourgeois rendition globally, is indeed a flight from social reality, it becomes easy to see through the opportunism in Zaman’s embrace as the endorsement of what we have referred to elsewhere as ‘vulgar economics’; vulgar in the sense of being empty of social roots and human connection but purely a technical calculation without reference to who owns what resources.
Mohammed Imad Ali- Chief Executive Officer - Citi Islamic Investment Bank E.C. Bahrain, has isolated some basic principles of Islamic economics, based on the overarching perspective that “Islamic economics is the knowledge and application of injunctions and rules of the Shariah (Islamic law) that prevent injustice in the acquisition and disposal of material resources in order to provide satisfaction to human beings and enable them to perform their obligations to Allah and the society”. The principles are:
1. Man and his Position: Man is the vicegerent (Khalifa) of Allah (SWT) and is obliged to follow the guidelines sent down by Him in every sphere of life for success in the life here and the life hereafter.
2. Wealth and Resources: Allah has created abundant resources (both actual and potential). But these resources are unequally distributed around us with wisdom to create a relationship among the human beings. Every human being has equal right to acquire these resources through righteous means.
3. Economic Trust: The natural inequality enables some people to earn more than the others. To maintain a balance in the society, it is required that a part of the surplus earned by a person should go to one who is not able to earn. This principle is known as Economic Trust.
4. Economic Activities: Islam provides comprehensive guidelines on economic activities i.e. production, distribution, and consumption. The commodities and services to be produced are categorised into necessities, comforts and luxuries. The first preference in the production process shall be given to necessities, then comforts and then followed by luxuries. Towards distribution, whatever is being produced should be divided among those involved in the production, according to their share, without any deception. Towards consumption, those who are provided with the bounties of wealth are not expected to live as they wish and consume in a manner they desire. It is neither allowed to squander nor to hoard wealth in a few hands. Moderation and self-control are rather expected. Extravagance and wastage in consumption are prohibited.
5. Trade and Business: Islam permits and encourages trade. However, it provides a few conditions to protect the interest of the parties involved in the trade and in the interest of the society. One cannot trade in the commodities that are prohibited and clearly mentioned in Quran and Ahadith and that are not in the collective interest of the society.
6. Role and Nature of Money: Contrary to the prevailing system, Islam views money as only a Medium of Exchange and a measure of Value. It does not consider it to be a commodity in itself.
7. Debt in Islam: Generally, Islam discourages one’s involvement in debt. It permits the same only when borrowing money becomes a necessity. The person getting into debt must be aware of his ability, both actual and potential, to repay the debt even before entering the transaction.
8. Zakat and Charity: Zakat means purifying or increase. Allah (SWT) has made it obligatory for every able individual to pay annually a portion (2.5%) of the surplus earned to the poor and the needy as their share in the form of Zakat. In addition to the legal obligation (Zakat) Islam also encourages individuals to spend in the optional charity (Sadaqah) for social welfare.
9. Savings in Islam: Islam also encourages saving a portion of wealth for future uncertainties and requirement.
10. Reward: Islam considers the worldly profit, self-satisfaction and material rewards, but not to the extent that it accords to the life hereafter. Islam states that by following the divine guidance individuals can have a successful life here in this world and more importantly a successful life in the hereafter.
Thus we see that Islamic Economics, in simple terms, is the subject or science that studies and guides the economic behaviour of man in the light of divine guidance. As Ali summarized, “the fundamental principles of Islamic economics rest on and are grounded in a sense of accountability, responsibility, mutual trust, equity, justice and equal opportunity. If viewed from a practical sense, then it is clear that all the principles of Islamic economics are designed to achieve the betterment of mankind”.
Reflections on immediate and distant futures
There is obvious wisdom in Robert C. Tatum’s argument advanced in the 2016 mimeograph, issued by the Department of Economics, University of North Carolina at Asheville, entitled: “Homo Economicus as Fallen Man: The Need for Theological Economics” which runs thus:
The economics discipline has much to gain by devoting more scholarly attention to theology‐informed economics inquiry that is neither the reserve of economists who believe in the divine nor limited to a single religion. Illustrations regarding economic inequality, work, debt, and trade suggest that theological considerations can yield both better positive and normative economic analysis. For the rich and varied questions of economics though, a narrative analogous to the biblical story of the fall of man makes clear that theology cannot be the sole source of economic understanding, but that theological insights can complement our understanding of economics through other means.
Also, I consider the invitation by Rachel M. McCleary, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University – viz her two-way causation thesis worthy of consideration; hear her:
Let us look at the two-way causation and, thereby, the relationship between religion and development. First, how does a nation’s economic and political development affect its level of religiosity? When we look at the effects of economic development on religion, we find that overall development — represented by per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — tends to reduce religiosity. The empirical evidence supports, to a degree, the secularization thesis which holds that with increased income, people tend to become less religious (as measured by religious attendance and religious beliefs). Economic development causes religion to play a lesser role in the political process and in policymaking, in the legal process, as well as in social arrangements (marriages, friendships, colleagues).
In closing, I wonder what the reader makes of the hypothesis that: “Economic development implies a rising opportunity cost of participating in religious services and prayer and that the more educated a person is, the more likely he is to turn to science for explanations of natural phenomena, with religion intended to explain supernatural phenomena and psychological phenomena for which there is no rational explanation. In essence, the higher the levels of educational attainment, the less religious people become”. I come in peace, please.